The Late Texas Poet Vassar Miller: Another poetic influence represented in my new book The Currency of His Light
by Roy Beckemeyer
My latest poetry book, The Currency of His Light (Turning Plow Press, 2023) contains two short poems inspired by quotes from work by the two-time Texas Poet Laureate, Vassar Miller (1924-1998). I suspect quite a few readers will not be familiar with Miller and her work, so thought that I should elaborate a bit here.
I own two (of her ten) books of poetry, Wage War on Silence (1960) and My Bones Being Wiser (1963), both put out by Wesleyan University Press. Both the epigraphs I used were from Wage War on Silence, which was a Pulitzer Prize nominee in 1961. The University of North Texas Press holds a yearly poetry book contest in Miller’s name. She lived in Houston all her life (she had cerebral palsy which made mobility and speech difficult), and she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Houston. She reviewed books for the Houston Post in the 1950s and 1960s, taught creative writing at the St. John’s School in Houston and was writer-in-residence at the University of St. Thomas. The short biography from which some of this information came may be found on the Texas State Historical Association website. She was inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in 1996.
In Miller’s obituary in The New York Times (Nov. 8, 1998), Rick Lyman noted: “Many Texas writers and critics, most notably Larry McMurtry, lamented the lack of attention paid to her work, which had never been considered particularly fashionable until late in her career. ‘That she is to this day little known, read or praised in Texas is the most damning comment possible on our literary culture,’ he wrote in a 1981 essay in The Texas Observer.”
After McMurtry’s essay appeared, Miller was named Texas Poet Laureate in 1982 and again in 1988. Her collected papers, which include her correspondence with such luminaries as McMurtry, Richard Hugo, and James Wright, are in the Archives of the University of Houston.
A lovely memoir about Miller and her personality and work may be found in Jenni Simmons’ Curator Magazine article “She Spoke to Silence.”
Here is one of my two poems inspired by quotes from her work, after which I have added Vassar Miller’s poem, “Tree of Silence.” My epigraph is the first line of that poem.
“Along the branches of our silence hang our words.”
—Vassar Miller, “The Tree of Silence”
The words form,
rounded as apples,
as oblong pears suddenly
succulent, the fleshy home
of pips, of seedling insights,
ideas of future generations
of thoughts and proposals yet
unsaid, but pregnant with years
of considered cogitation to come,
misunderstandings avoided, loves
never lost, brilliant discourses
instigated by foliferous buds,
by orange leaves of words
all strung, curled, intricately
scalloped by the clenched
teeth, the coiled tongue
By Roy Beckemeyer, from The Currency of His Light (Turning Plow Press, 2023), p. 102.
“The Tree of Silence
Upon the branches of our silence hang our words,
Gone are the months of summer, gone
Let us leave, though pinched and wan,
The windfalls wither
Under the tree whose shade affords
No shelter either.
For when was language ever food for human yearning!
Mocking the sheen of golden peach,
Words only drain
Hearts of strength; let mortal speech
Make time and way
For life, the long and lonely yearning
How to pray.”
By Vassar Miller, from Wage War on Silence (Wesleyan University Press, 1960), p. 51.
I sincerely hope that this piece encourages you to read more of my poetry, and more of Vassar Miller’s work as well. Please link to my author’s page for information on how to acquire a copy of The Currency of His Light (Turning Plow Press, 2023).
~Roy Beckemeyer 17 March 2023.